Tattoos & Totems

Part III: Insomnia (2002)

Is our identity defined by our actions?


“Who was she?”


“Insomnia” is one of the few Nolan films where he didn’t pen the script himself, although it’s easy to see what attracted him to it.  The story is the physical manifestation of an introspective search for identity, in the form of a cop taking on the characteristics of the criminal he’s chasing.

Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is sent, along with his partner, to a remote Alaskan town to assist in the investigation of the murder of a young local girl named Kay Connell.  Dormer has a bit of a tainted past, and we get the impression that he was sent away to get him out of some heat that he had brought on himself because of a couple of morally questionable actions in the line of duty.  His partner is soon to be interrogated by Internal Affairs.

The first and all-encompassing question Dormer asks is simply, “Who was she?”  He wants to know everything about her, everything that makes up her identity, from her past (where she came from, what her habits were, past misdeeds), her possessions (journal, books, necklace, dresses), her friends (punk kid boyfriend, local writer named Walter Finch), her dreams (to become a writer).The first half of the film only deals with discovering her identity, which would hopefully lead to the discovery of the criminal.

Upon finding who they believe to be her murderer, the local writer Finch (Robin Williams), the cops give chase and Dormer accidentally(?) shoots his partner through the fog, in a fatal case of mistaken identity.  Not only does Dormer begin to question himself in whether his actions were purposeful, but going by sheer body count, he becomes no better than the murderer he’s chasing.


Because Finch actually sees the murder take place, he’s now got dirt on Dormer, and should Dormer ever arrest him, Finch will squeal and they’ll both end up in prison for murder. Now Dormer not only has to allow the criminal to go free in order to save himself, but he still has to give the impression that he’s chasing the bad guy – another case of chasing something that upon obtaining will mean the chaser’s ultimate demise.  Sound familiar?

Dormer cautiously befriends Finch, getting close enough to discuss what was happening that Finch could tape it as blackmail, showering in Finch’s house when he wasn’t home, even feeding his dogs.  He was more comfortable in Finch’s life than he was in his own.

In one scene, Dormer tries to justify the difference between the two men, though both claim their murders were accidents.  Dormer’s murder was a split-second slip of the trigger, while Finch’s took ten minutes to complete, though it began with him simply trying to quiet the young girl.  Who’s more of a criminal?  Finch claimed he cared about Kay.  They both knew that Dormer wasn’t happy with his partner’s cooperation with Internal Affairs.  But both men had committed the same act.

A theme grows prevalent in Nolan’s films with “Insomnia”, of man’s almost instinctual philosophical chase for an answer that only leads to more questions, or in this film specifically, a physical chase where one man cannot allow himself to obtain his goal.  This pursuit is best represented in what I can only assume is Nolan’s favorite mythical creature, the Ouroboros.

The Ouroboros will raise his head (if he can remove it from his tail) in all of Nolan’s films.  Leonard Shelby made a conscious decision to keep going round and round, because as long as he’s burdened with this thing called life, he’s going to have to find something to do with it.  Discovering oneself is something that Nolan claims is almost an act in futility, but a necessary act for any semblance of a productive or fulfilled life, nonetheless.  However, we can’t possibly know everything that we’re searching for, so we have to carefully choose which paths of enlightenment we take.  As the lizard trying to eat his own body will tell us, we just can’t fit it all in.

Keep an eye out for the Ouroboros.

In the climax of the film, and bringing full circle, the story of man chasing himself chasing man, Finch and Dormer shoot each other.  In one of the most telling and symbolic shots of the film, Dormer looks down into the pool of calm water in which Finch has fallen and sees not his reflection – as we’ve seen millions of times over in film and television, always representing a character’s introspection – but he sees the man he was chasing underwater (baptism, being washed away of his earthly deeds), and slowly sinking to the bottom.

Dormer makes his way outside, into the constantly shining sunlight.  The Alaskan sunshine is a metaphor for Dormer’s conscience.  He knows that he’s done bad things in his life, and he isn’t going to be allowed to rest until he catches whatever it is he’s chasing.  It’s the physical representation of the unending burden of his conscience, just as his chase for Finch is the physical representation of his quest for redemption.

In killing Finch he finds that redemption, although he stops the local officer, Ellie (Hilary Swank), from throwing away an incriminating bullet she found where Dormer shot his partner.  He doesn’t want her going down the same path of moral ambiguity that he’s sleepily taken, and isn’t concerned with the consequences of his past actions since 1.) he found redemption in killing Finch and stopping Ellie from turning dirty, and 2.) he’ll be dead in about four seconds.  “Don’t lose your way,” he tells her in his dying breath.  “Let me sleep.  Just let me sleep.”  We assume he’s going to the same place where Leonard Shelby was glimpsed.

Nolan’s next film was his truly breakout film; not breakout as Memento, which was an independent film which garnered him enough attention to be given two of Hollywood’s top actors and a decent budget to tell his story, but breakout in the sense that his next film would explode his name into every household in the nation when he’s given one of America’s most beloved characters of all time as well as the keys to Fort Knox to reinvent not only a superhero franchise, but the way superhero movies are made forever.

And what story might Nolan want to tell about this mysterious, masked superhero?  Maybe the story of his quest to discover who he truly is? Nolan’s next project is where it all begins again.  It’s where Bruce Wayne risks everything in order to find out who he reallyis, to discover his own identity. Nolan’s next film, and the film that solidified him as one of the top five directors in Hollywood today, is where “Batman Begins”.

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